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May 6, 1998 - National Science Policy Study

The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) appreciates the opportunity you have extended to participate in the House Science Committee's National Science Policy Study, and would like to submit the following issues for the Study Committee to consider. The ASM is the largest single life science society in the world, with over 43,000 members, including scientists and science administrators in academic, industrial and government institutions, working in genetics and molecular biology as well as in agriculture, the environment and medicine.

The ASM is of the firm opinion that the United States should, as a goal, strive to maintain its leadership among world powers in the life sciences. Moreover, the status of world leader should guide U.S. investments in a wide range of science and technology programs that relate to the environment and human health and welfare. In developing and conducting these programs, the ASM supports the following recommendations:

  1. The federal government should support basic inquiry and applied mission driven research, recognizing that the two are linked, at times overlapping, and that progress in research is not unidirectional. Basic research is intellectually motivated. It has no clear beneficiary and depends on continued government support. Applied research favors a select few, and cost-sharing programs should be designed to apportion its support among its beneficiaries, both public and private.

    The federal government should consider the following objectives as essential to the health of the research enterprise: 1) support for peer reviewed, investigator initiated basic research. Support for meritorious fundamental research, without regard to any obvious applicability, will continue to be the best source of new ideas and economic progress; the key to assuring scientific quality and research progress is a stringent peer review system; 2) support for current researchers and more opportunities for new investigators; 3) support for areas of good science that have been under funded; 4) support for research training in order to attract the best and the brightest students to research. Racial and ethnic minorities have long been under represented among researchers and training programs designed to increase and expand opportunities for under represented minorities to pursue careers in research should be supported; and 5) support for institutional research capability to update facilities, and support essential resources for research, including state of the art research equipment, supplies and instrumentation.

    The Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) has begun to formulate Presidential initiatives that enhance the likelihood of scientific advances in a particular field. The impact of the microbiological sciences in terms of usefulness to society's problems is enormous. Two areas that seem to merit such initiatives from the point of view of microbiologists are biotechnology (including microbial DNA sequence analysis) and emerging infectious diseases in humans, plants and animals. All indications are that the next five to ten years may represent one of the most challenging in history because of the emergence of new, more virulent infectious agents and the reemergence of old infectious agents previously thought to be under control. There is great need to maintain the strength of fundamental and applied microbiology and infectious disease programs, and the study of microbial diseases is critical for the public health of this country. A better understanding of immunology and a better means of infectious disease control would greatly reduce health care costs for a population with increased life expectancy. Other areas in clear need of attention are maintenance and restoration of environmental quality, increased agricultural productivity to meet the needs of a greatly increased world population , and ways to detect and remedy global change. Studies of microbial diversity are likely to be especially important for bioremediation and biotechnology. Microorganisms are important agents in biogeochemical cycles, bioremediation and represent potentially important biotechnological agents for renewable and clean fuel production.

  2. Science policy should recognize that a great deal of research today is performed on a multidisciplinary, team basis. Multidisciplinary, team research is necessary for advances in basic knowledge, and for the resolution of many of the most pressing problems of society, such as cancer, hunger, and pollution, where complexities are beyond solution by any single discipline. Federal programs are needed for the development of multidisciplinary teams of scientists with high standards of performance in their individual disciplines, and with a capacity to work together to solve problems that are not within the province of any one traditional discipline.

  3. Science and technology policy priorities and programs must recognize that research as practiced today is global. Modern communication technology is international as are many of this country's major industries. Moreover, it is increasingly clear that many environmental and health problems must be addressed on a global level. Our graduate schools have high enrollment of foreign students, and many of these students remain in this country on completion of their studies. Federal support of science on an international level is in our national interest, and priority should be given to rejoining UNESCO so Americans may again participate fully in the many important programs of education and research UNESCO sponsors throughout the world. The ASM believes also that the Secretary of State should have a Science Advisor, and that there should be Science Advisors in U.S. Embassies in major countries throughout the world.

  4. Science policy should encourage the development of intellectual property and technology transfer, using as a model the Bayh-Dole Act and related legislation that effectively catalyzed technology transfer by both government and university laboratories, and gave rise to the biotechnology industry. The Federal government must see that intellectual property law does not hamper creativity or access to ideas or to research materials or tools needed for continued development of an infant industry such as biotechnology. Moreover, intellectual property law should be harmonized to facilitate activity at an international level for the reasons described in Item 3 above. However, ownership should encourage, not impede progress or constrain communication. Creativity cannot be mandated, but it can be supported and protected by good patent and copyright legislation. Cyberspace is an expanding frontier that must be accommodated in any new or revised policy. Moreover, entrepreneurship which gives rise to small but dynamic enterprises, such as those characteristic of the current computer and biotechnology industries, must be encouraged. Intellectual property and technology transfer policy and legislation must strive to balance the rights and privileges of ownership with the need by those engaged in teaching and research for open and full access to information.

  5. The federal government should support the education and training at all levels of human resources required for the continued growth and economic well being of the country's scientific enterprise. There should be Federal assistance programs that award support on a basis of merit to prepare undergraduate and graduate students as well as postdoctoral students for employment as scientists and technicians. A capable scientific and technical workforce is an important part of progress and competitiveness, and global markets deal not only in products but in highly educated human resources as well. Support for educational programs should recognize that learning is a continuing process that extends into the workplace. Federal support programs are needed for continuing professional education and for distant learning to sustain excellence and to promote versatility in the workplace. The relation of research to graduate programs in science is deserving of special attention, since the education of graduate students and post doctoral students is largely a byproduct of research. Research funding and equipment and travel support must be adequate to cover the costs of educating each new generation of scientists because research training at both the introductory and advanced levels is best accomplished through apprenticeship.

  6. A policy that clarifies the role of science in meeting national goals must provide for increasing public understanding of how science works to generate new knowledge, and to translate that knowledge into useful purposes as well. Moreover, there is need for scientists to increase their understanding of economics, international affairs and policymaking, and improve their capacity to communicate with the public. The scientific illiteracy of the public and the political illiteracy of scientists are equally important and deserving of attention. The current level of public understanding of science in this country is repeatedly reported as unacceptably low as compared to other industrialized nations. K-12 education must better prepare students in science to function as citizens in an ever-increasingly technical world. Special programs are needed to foster the collaboration of working as well as retired academic and industrial scientists with teachers in grades K-12, and provision should be made in undergraduate curricular for instruction that offers students in the humanities and social studies a broad acquaintance with several sciences.

The long-term future of this country depends in part on its citizens understanding the role of science not only in public health, but in environmental quality, energy supply and utilization, transportation, communication and national security as well. However, this understanding depends largely on scientists making every attempt to communicate the nature of their work in terms that are clear and comprehensible to those who make policy for a public whose lives will be changed by the advancement of science and technology.

In closing, we again thank you for the opportunity to contribute to the development of a coherent, long-range science and technology policy. We wish you well in your endeavor.